Inside The AI Funhouse: An Interview With Act-On's Michelle Huff

Amidst all the yuks about Amazon’s Baby Registry gaffe, one person weighed in with a sober opinion. Michelle Huff, CMO of Act-On Software, said: “This kind of mishap can happen even to the best of us, and should remind us marketers that technology by itself is never an end-all, be-all.”

That’s a pertinent statement coming from someone whose firm specializes in cloud-based marketing automation software. To get more insights on this issue, Email Insider interviewed Huff. She discussed the challenges of email marketing, and described some one-to-one capabilities.

So what happened to Amazon?

I don’t know about Amazon specifically. But if you’re sending some emails to a few people, any issue remains small. Once you take something and scale it out, though, even small mistakes reach a lot of people. In general, it’s usually a technical glitch. From my perspective, you will probably see more of this as we leverage more technology. Sometimes you have to work alongside technology, holding the guardrails and making decisions on how you communicate.



How could they have prevented it?

In general, with a technical glitch, it’s hard to see what you could have done technically to prevent it. But you have to decide how you are going to respond if something goes wrong: It’s your brand — things can go wrong. At different hours around the globe, someone can be asleep, someone can be on an airplane. There are tools to help you monitor what is said about you in the social channels — it’s kind of like an early warning system.

It sounds pretty challenging, though.  

It’s hard to stay on top of the different technologies. When I started in marketing, it was before the cloud and software: everything was on premise. One trend is that marketers are some of the biggest technology buyers, away from IT: they almost have their own IT staffs with all these different services they’re using. They’re still trying to get a better grip on what they purchased today, and it continually changes. The people who are trying to innovate tend to be the ones who outpace their competition.

What are the specific issues they face?

For one, the data is becoming more and more important. It’s who we have within our databases, how we understand our prospect universe. But there are so many systems where all this stuff is recorded, and you have to make assumptions on how you group individuals. You can have the best tools and strategies, but if you have very complicated data, you have to keep it clean and make sure it’s all connected. With the wrong filters, you can continually run into issues where people are getting wrong messages.

What does Act-On bring to the party? 

At Act-On, we focus on marketing automation technology.

We help marketers create adaptive journeys based on customer behaviors, preferences and data. Ultimately, we provide a foundation to manage all your programs, send the right message and see how effective your marketing is and its impact on revenue. 

Where do you see the technology going?

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to be much more a part of it: They’re pretty foundational.  Think about how it’s done today — let’s say you’ve got an email. When should we send it? You need to pick a time: let’s test Monday 10 a.m. vs. Tuesday 9 a.m., and see which one does better. You look at the historical charts and see that you get a better result at 11 at Wednesday. It’s all a little game. All of that takes a ton of data that marketers have to look an ongoing basis and make a judgment call. Machine learning takes all that data and makes recommendations for the individual. That analysis is hard to do, but you might see that the guy is engaging with other channels on Thursday, not just email. When I send emails to 1,000 people at 11, it’s just an aggregate.

How can it be any other way?

We’re helping marketers with a capability called Adaptive Sending, part of our adaptive marketing suite. Among other things, it makes one-to-one recommendations to help you adapt to the individual’s send time, as opposed to the aggregate.

You mean you can have individual send times?


Is email really declining, as some say?

When I hear this, I think of snail mail: There’s definitely less volume, but a lot of marketers still send out packages— it’s part of the mix. With email, there was a peak where it was so innovative, almost everyone read every email that came in. There’s a lot of volume now. How do you stand out, and reach the person you want to engage? We haven’t seen it die, but people are more balanced with it. Some engage more through the phone and social channels, and less through email, but others engage more through email.

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